Some musicians share a rapport that promotes the belief they were predestined to perform together. Such is the case with the above triumvirate of duos. Englishman Martin Simpson, a notable revivalist who’s renowned for his ability as an acoustic finger-style guitarist, slide player, banjo picker and singer, has found the perfect partner in songster and multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons from Grammy Award-winning US band Carolina Chocolate Drops, with whom to continue his career-spanning examination of the shared history between British and American folk and blues. There’s nothing pretentious or pompous about this offering, despite the album’s grandiloquent official title. A hand-picked selection of archival songs from this transatlantic alliance — recorded live at various venues during an 2015 tour — is without artifice, with arrangements of uniform excellence that compliment both players. Read more here.
The banjo has been seen as the characteristic instrument of bluegrass music. For 70 years, it wasn’t bluegrass unless it featured a banjo. Many suggest that’s still true, that bluegrass has lost its way when it plugs in, uses other instruments than the five (mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass) that Bill Monroe had in the Blue Grass Boys or the six (add the Dobro) Lester & Earl used in The Foggy Mountain Boys. Hardcore traditionalists maintain that music without the syncopated, three-finger style of Earl Scruggs cannot be bluegrass. Others hold that music, like all of life, progresses, evolves, changes, morphs. While, as musical genres go, bluegrass is a hoary 70 years old, the issue of WIBA (What Is Bluegrass Anyway) will continue to be revisited. Meanwhile, the banjo itself has proven its own ability to change.
The banjo developed through the 19th century, mostly in the South, as an instrument played by slaves in a dance situation or in minstrel shows. Here, Dom Flemmons and Rhiannon Giddens perform a square dance call.
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Jug band music began as street-corner busking, where performers soon learned that the novelty of blowing on a ceramic jug, kazoo or harmonica grew larger crowds than the more sophisticated picking on banjos, mandolins and acoustic guitars by their more dignified blues colleagues.
But even within the African-American music community of the Jim Crow South, jazz musicians looked down on the blues musicians who looked down on the jug-band buskers.
As often happens, the folks at the bottom of the totem pole played with more spirit and freedom than those at the top. The same need to draw a crowd encouraged not only novelty instruments but also ear-grabbing tunes and theatrical lyrics. You can hear that free spirit in the Memphis Jug Band’s 1928 On the Road Again, featuring the guitar and lead vocal of Will Shade.
Watching multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons and fiddle player Brian Farrow perform trad tune, “Polly Put the Kettle On” was a little like stepping back in time. Flemons, also know as “The American Songster” is one of the most well versed performers in the old-time folk music scene today. His sets are always part history lesson leaving audiences equally enlighten and entertained, the perfect fit for the vibe of The Hoot. It was not hard to imagine Pete Seeger in the room with us for this session. He would have been pleased. Read more here.
“On the first Sunday of every month, Bill Ferris attended an African-American church on the farm where he grew up. Over time Ferris, a white child, became a routine presence at the church. He especially loved participating in the church’s communal singing. “I learned the hymns, and I just felt very emotionally close to that world,” Ferris tells American Songster Radio host Dom Flemons.” Read more here.